Skip to main content

Laser-induced removal of space debris

If you never thought something as small as a paint chip could have the potential to destroy the International Space Station, think again. Traveling at speeds upwards of 17,500 mph, the ISS could be torn apart by debris smaller than a marble in an instant. NASA is currently tracking more than 500,000 objects orbiting Earth including non-operational satellites and obsolete disengagements from past rocket missions. But the greatest risk to active satellites and space missions comes from the millions of pieces of debris that are nearly impossible to track.
7 mm chip on ISS window caused by a small
fragment of space debris no larger than
a few microns across

An article from 12 May 2016 in the Washington Post reported the International Space Station’s recent collision with “something as unassuming as a flake of paint or a metal fragment just a few thousandths of a millimeter across.”

The fragment left a 7-millimeter chip in a window of the European-built Cupola module. ESA astronaut Tim Peake was the first to snap a picture of the damage, then shared it with the world on his twitter account.

So how might we deal with all this hazardous space material? Lasers!

Authors of Laser-based removal of irregularly shaped space debris, Stefan Scharring, Jascha Wilken, and Hans-Albert Eckel of the German Aerospace Center discuss a new method in applying laser-induced damage principles to clean up space junk, where the use of high-energy laser pulses modify the orbit of debris causing it to burn up in the atmosphere.

The greatest improvement from previous studies in laser-based removal of debris is the ability to target irregularly-shaped objects – a characteristic shared by most space material.

To get a better picture of how much debris we’re working with, watch this short video simulating the increasing amount of space junk that has accumulated over the years in low Earth orbit (LEO).


Claude Phipps of Photonic Associates, LLC and his colleagues have been researching laser orbital debris removal (LODR) for over 15 years and have concluded that it is a very promising technique. Laser technology is improving at an astounding rate and is proving to be the most cost-efficient solution to space junk clean up.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

#FacesofPhotonics: Optimax Director of Technology and Strategy, Jessica DeGroote Nelson

SPIE Senior Member Jessica DeGroote Nelson works as the director of technology and strategy at Optimax Systems in Ontario, New York. She also teaches as an adjunct assistant professor at The Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester (UR), and is a Conference Chair for SPIE Optifab 2019. 
Nelson also teaches Optical Materials, Fabrication, and Testing for the Optical Engineer at SPIE conferences. This course is geared toward optical engineers who are hoping to learn the basics about how optics are made, and ways in which to help reduce the cost of the optics they are designing. It is also offered online.
"Optical tolerancing and the cost to fabricate an optic can be a point of tension or confusion between optical designers and optical fabricators," Nelson says. "I teach this course to help give optical designers who are new to the field a few tools in their toolbelt as they navigate tolerancing and purchasing some of their first designs. One of the things I lov…

Taking a Deep Dive into the World of Biophotonics

SPIE Student Member Gavrielle Untracht is pursuing her PhD at The University of Western Australia. She had the chance to participate in the 9th International Graduate Summer School in Biophotonics this past June on the island of Ven between Sweden and Denmark.

At the school, sponsored by SPIE, invited experts from around the globe gave extended presentations on topics like tissue optics, strategies for cancer treatment using lasers, and entrepreneurship in photonics. Attendees also had the opportunity to present their current research projects, results, or ideas. Gavrielle shares her experiences of the summer school with this community in the following guest blog post.


I recently returned from a week of great discussions and beautiful weather at the 9th Biophotonics Summer School on the Isle of Ven, Sweden. This experience, made possible (in part) by SPIE, was an invaluable opportunity for networking and a deep dive into the world of biophotonics that I would highly recommend to any…

#FacesofPhotonics: Applied Optics Master's Student Christiane Ebongue

Bonjour! Meet Christiane Ebongue, graduate student at Delaware State University (DSU). Christiane is working on a master's degree in applied optics with a goal of achieving a PhD in Physics. When she is not spending time in the lab —something she says she loves so much, she would even want to be there on her birthday! — she enjoys her role as president of her university's SPIE Student Chapter.

Ebongue moved to the United States from Cameroon for college, although she only spoke French at the time. Learning to speak a new language while learning a new field of science was intimidating, she says, but this feat just speaks to how tenacious of a person Ebongue is.

Another example of this steadfast dedication and passion lies in her photonics advocacy work. After defending her thesis in the morning, Ebongue hopped in her car and drove from Delaware to Washington D.C., to participate in Congressional Visits Day, without missing a beat!

"It was awesome, I don't regret it at …